SOWETO, South Africa - Nelson Mandela, returning Tuesday to a hero's embrace in South Africa's largest black township, told 120,000 cheering supporters jammed into a soccer stadium here that he had often dreamed in prison "of this day when I could come back to my home." "My return fills my heart with joy," the 71-year-old black nationalist said as he scanned the country's largest political rally in more than three decades. "But I also return with a deep sense of sadness to find that 27 years later you are still suffering under an inhuman system.
"Our people need proper housing, not ghettos like Soweto," he said. "And they need the right to participate in determining policies that affect their lives."
Activity in the township of 2.5-million came to a halt as tens of thousands arrived by car, bus and foot to see and hear the leader whose name has been the rallying cry of black liberation since his imprisonment in 1962. Every aisle and seat in the stadium was filled as Mandela arrived by helicopter, and volunteer marshals struggled to keep at least 10,000 more spectators from entering the dangerously overcrowded stadium.
Ecstatic screams of "Mandela! Mandela!" greeted him as he, his wife, Winnie, and other African National Congress leaders recently freed from prison paraded around the field. Mandela raised his clenched fist in a liberation salute to the stands bathed in the black, green and gold colors of the ANC, and thousands of black as well as white arms shot up to return the greeting.
"When I first saw him, I felt like I was seeing the heavens open up," said Molefe Sekele, a 27-year-old factory worker. "You feel it's the end of our struggle, even though it's not, because we have wanted him out for so long."
The government on Tuesday issued its first response to remarks Mandela has made since his Sunday release. It said the freed ANC leader's commitment to the armed struggle was "not helpful" but added that it was encouraged by Mandela's understanding of the concerns of the white minority and his preference for a peaceful solution to South Africa's problems.
Gerrit Viljoen, the government minister in charge of getting negotiations with the black majority under way, said the government was still prepared to negotiate with the ANC but was not ready "simply to give over power."
Viljoen said he believed that there was enough common ground for negotiations between the ANC and the government, but he added that the government was still awaiting a full response from the ANC executive committee to President Frederik de Klerk's recent reform initiatives.
The rally Tuesday was generally peaceful, and police on standby for trouble remained far outside the stadium fences. Mandela was protected by more than two dozen unarmed security guards who scanned the stadium with binoculars.
No incidents of violence were reported, but 32 people were injured when a section of fence ringing the stadium collapsed in the crush of crowds.
In his speech, Mandela criticized the national police force for breaking up "our peaceful marches and demonstrations." But he offered a conciliatory message as well, asking police to "join our march to a new South Africa, where you also have a place."
"We note with appreciation that there are certain areas where policemen are acting with restraint and fulfilling the real role of protecting all our people irrespective of race," he said.
Mandela, wearing a blue suit and tie, was introduced by his former co-defendant Walter Sisulu, who turned to his longtime friend and said: "Mr. Mandela, I say to you, the people want to be led by you."